Harford hiring outside lawyers to fight employee's lawsuit

The Harford County Council voted to allow the county to hire outside legal counsel to defend a $9 million lawsuit brought by Tina Wagner, a county employee who claims she was wrongfully discharged.

The council voted six to one in support of County Attorney Rob McCord's request for up to $50,000 to pay the outside counsel. Council President Billy Boniface voted against the request.

"Based on the allegations, it's a relatively complex matter involving constitutional law, employment law and defamation and privacy law," McCord explained during Tuesday's council legislative session in Bel Air.

McCord said hiring an outside lawyer is fairly rare for Harford government, as he has only made the request two or three times in the past 15 years as the county's top legal adviser.

The council voted to approve spending up to $50,000 to start, requiring McCord to come back for approval for every additional $50,000, which McCord agreed to do.

McCord told the county council he plans to hire a lawyer from Bowie & Jensen LLC, a Towson firm with about 20 lawyers.

A case like the Tina Wagner suit requires a team of at least two lawyers, he explained.

Wagner, who was a cashier in the treasury department when she was terminated late 2011, is seeking "injunctive relief and monetary damages in connection with her wrongful termination from employment with Harford County," which resulted in "defamation and violations of the plaintiff's free speech."

Wagner appealed her firing to the county's Personnel Advisory Board, which earlier this year ruled she should be reinstated. She is currently employed by the county and is classified as water and sewer permits clerk, Janet Schaub, the county's deputy director for human resources, said Wednesday morning.

Wagner's suit claims she was dismissed because of her failure to support County Executive David Craig's candidacy in 2010 and because of her husband's political campaign against Craig. The suit also accuses County Human Resources Director Scott Gibson of orchestrating her firing with the knowledge and consent of Craig.

Tina Wagner's husband, Robert Wagner, unsuccessfully ran against Craig in the 2010 Republican primary election.

Before then, Robert Wagner had served as county council president from 2002-2006, during which time he voted against appointing Craig to the vacancy in the county executive's office in mid-2005, after then-county executive Jim Harkins quit to take a state job. Prior to serving as council president, Robert Wagner was a council member representing Aberdeen, Churchville and eastern Bel Air for 12 years.

McCord noted Wagner's suit consists of 19 counts that include allegations of defamation, invasion of privacy, federal claims, violation of due process and violation of First Amendment rights. She aggressively fought her dismissal through the county's appeals process but was still terminated.

"Right now, the department of law is involved in several cases not related to this case," McCord said. "The experience and objectivity of outside counsel would be invaluable to the ...successful resolution to this matter."

"There's a chance for this one to go, if it's not resolved on the motions level, on paper, the chance to go for quite some time and I want to make sure we have somebody that can handle that," McCord said in answer to a question from Councilman Jim McMahan.

McCord said his office currently has eight other attorneys, five of which are engaged in a major issue – a case of a TASER-related death in the county jail – which would leave three people theoretically able to deal with the Wagner case.

"I have 10 people that have law degrees, but I don't have 10 people who have federal or employment litigation experience," he said.

Boniface, who defeated Robert Wagner in winning the council presidency in 2006, explained after the meeting that he voted against the request because he does not see the need for outside counsel.

"I just felt that we set a precedent every time you hire outside legal counsel," he said, adding he thinks the county has adequate legal staff to defend the suit.

"The size of the law department is right," he said.

Also during Tuesday's meeting, the council passed amendments to a bill granting property tax credits to Magnolia Road residents who live by a waste-to-energy facility.

The council also a bill adding the definition of "animal shelter" to the zoning code, as requested by the Humane Society of Harford County, which wants to expand its operation in Fallston, including building a new shelter and dog park.

An earlier version of this online article contained incorrect information about Tina Wagner's employment status.

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